Thursday, August 29, 2013

Consumable Identity: Culture, Cuisine and National Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century

This is a piece that I wrote and presented to the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, on a panel titled "Eating America."

It's an unpublished draft that I set aside and never returned to after the conference. Despite having set it aside,  I'm proud of this piece and thought I'd share it here. Please do not cite,  or reproduce this article without my permission.


To explore the dietary habits, food and cookbooks of any society at any point in time is to uncover a store of information about that society. Cooking methods and preservation techniques imply local variety and the availability of native and imported foodstuffs. The ingredients used in creating a meal can hint at staples of the domestic economy, and dietary habits can indicate socio-economic standing. Additionally, cookbooks become a compendium of local attitudes, markers of culinary tastes and even expressions of political ideology. And yet until the recent past, food and eating habits have been the domain of sociologists, anthropologists and archeologists, and both amateur and professional food writers. Historians are just starting to recognize the importance of food as a tool to understanding our past. As Warren Balassco writes in Food Nations, “…Overall it is safe to say that food has until quite recently been largely invisible in academic history.” It seems as if social historians who look to the everyday to explain our past have ignored the fruits, vegetables, game and domestic beasts that made life possible. This study, along with those of my colleagues, is attempting to bring foodways research out of the cupboard and onto the table of mainstream of historical analysis.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cookbooks, food preparation, and eating were all, whether consciously or not, politically motivated and often markers of new cultural identity. Food became a celebration of nationhood, and the consumption and the choice of foods one prepared became a political act and part and parcel of the formation of a unique American identity. By exploring the first American cookbook, celebrations of various American foodstuffs, and the dietary habits of early Americans one can sense this emerging national identity.

 A natural place to start a study such as this would be an examination of cookbooks sold or published in the newly formed United States. Prior to 1796 the most often referenced cookbooks in America were imprints of British favorites. Eliza Smith’s “Compleat Housewife,” Susannah Carter’s “The Frugal Housewife, or complete woman cook,” and Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” could all be found on the kitchen shelves of literate Americans. Although these books sold well in America, they did not completely meet the needs of American cooks. In fact, the first few editions of these books completely ignored the local ingredients available to American cooks. In Smith’s “Compleat Housewife” for example there is no mention of corn, molasses, pumpkin, beans or any other staple of the American diet. What Americans needed was a cookbook that reflected their own cuisine.

Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” answered that need. Simmons book, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook published in America and the first written by an American. From its first printing it became the most popular cookbook in the United States. In fact, Simmons’ book saw three editions, several plagiarized editions and at least twelve distinct imprints, which were produced through 1822. The popularity of Simmons’ book surprised even her. “Demand” she writes, “has been so great and the sale so rapid that I find myself under a necessity of publishing a second edition.” Beyond being a simple recipe book, “American Cookery” was a record of an emerging American culture. 

The title page of this first American cookbook immediately hints that cooking in the New Republic was a statement of nationhood. The full title of the cookbook is  “American Cookery,/or the art of Dressing/ Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making/ Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings,/ Custards and Preserves,/ and all Kinds of/ Cakes,/ From the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake/ Adapted to this country,/ and all Grades of Life./ By Amelia Simmons,/ An American Orphan.” Several sections of this seemingly normal 18th century subtitle beg further analysis. 

One of the more curious statements made in the subtitle is Simmons’ assertion that the recipes in this book were “Adapted to this country,/ and all Grades of Life.” As other authors and intellectuals turned to the construction of narratives of nationhood through history, biography, images, and myths, Amelia Simmons was defining a national cuisine for all to consume. This statement of republican values and independence is an obvious attempt by Simmons to illustrate America’s unique character. Further evidence of Simmons political commentary is her statement that her book offers recipes for “all kinds of cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to the Plain Cake.” Although the referent of “imperial” and “plain” are cakes, one can assume that these are political distinctions rather than culinary ones and hint both at social mobility and equality within the new republic. 


Beyond the republican assertions in the title, Amelia Simmons’ declaration on the title page of her parentless status is also telling. This presentation of the author as an orphan, while perhaps a true reflection of the author’s past, is also in a late eighteenth-century context, the stuff of sentimental literature. But, more important is the broader political context of Simmons’ title page. By representing herself as an orphan, Simmons was also tapping into one of the more recognizable anti-British metaphors. From the first sparks of discontent, which emerged in the decade prior to the revolution, loyalists and many in the English parliament viewed the Americans as a spoiled and disobedient child. Colonial satirists accepted this designation and turned it on its head, asserting that they had become a fully matured and responsible child whose relationship with its parent had soured to the point where they were effectively an orphan, or would be better off being so. One of the more famous uses of this trope and one that nearly all Americans were familiar with is found in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine, in rationalizing America’s break from Great Britain, writes, “I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect.” To explain why this statement is not necessarily so Paine continues, "[n]othing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had any thing to do with her."  “American Cookery’s” title page thus places Simmons’ book within this same tradition and denotes an America that is an orphan or even better yet a country that is sui generis, one that developed its own unique identity and now knows the “best way” of doing things. 


“American Cookery” illuminates the development of national identity in other ways. This cookbook differs from the earlier British cookbooks in that it celebrates for the first time native ingredients, especially corn, pumpkin, and squash. Both pumpkin and other squash are highlighted in Simmons’ book. The recipes include a “crookneck or Winter Squash Pudding,” and two recipes for “Pomkin pudding.” Both of these recipes, along with using native squash, include suggestions for seasoning with molasses or maple syrup if refined sugar was not available. In Choosing molasses or even maple sugar as a substitute for refined sugar (an expensive and lucrative item in the British trade) and pumpkin and squash rather than European goods, Simmons was in effect supporting a domestic market and products, which were readily available to most cooks in the United States. Here then she shows a pride in using Native goods over those from imperial Europe. Thus the use of these goods is both practical and politically expedient. More important than her use of pumpkin and squash were her recipes for corn-based dishes. 

Prior to Simmons’ book none of the cookbooks imported into the colonies or newly formed United States included corn-based recipes. Obviously all colonists and Americans would have been consuming corn and corn-based food products, but Simmons’ book was the first to collect these recipes in print. “American Cookery,” contains five recipes requiring the use of corn meal, three Indian pudding recipes, one for Johnny or Hoe cakes and one for Indian Slapjacks. Here Simmons is celebrating American dishes that the English saw as necessary evils when living in the crude colonies or America, but which they rejected at home. As Trudy Eden writes in her dissertation “Makes Like, Makes Unlike: Food, Health, and Identity in the Early Chesapeake,” "Although the colonists planted maize very early in the settlement experience, sources from the early years show that they believed it to be unhealthy. Furthermore, until the middle of the eighteenth century, its daily use by all social classes is doubtful. Wide scale use of maize in the Chesapeake occurred only when the Angloamerican inhabitants sought to mark their ethnic identity as separate from the British."


If one combines this analysis of the early Chesapeake residents using food as a marker of cultural difference, with the assertions of Benjamin Franklin, in the London Gazeteer, in 1766, who said “Pray let me, an American inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world and the johny cake or hoe cake, hot from the fire is better than a Yorkshire muffin,” it becomes clear that a distinct American

identity was forming through its cuisine. Although an individual’s fondness or distain of a particular dish or ingredient is, of course, not in itself significant, it becomes so when it is repeated by writers of one nation toward a staple of the diet of another, then these gustatory insults become national insults or identity one-upmanship.

Simmons and Franklin were not the only Americans singing the praises of Indian Corn. Joel Barlow’s 1793, long form poem “The Hasty Pudding,” celebrates the unique strength that corn pudding offers the American character. He notes that in Paris, “that corrupted town” and London, “lost in smoke and steeped in tea,” one cannot utter the name Indian pudding, but it is, Barlow insists the meal that “I praise myself in thee/May father lov’d thee thro’ his length of days;/ For thee his fields were shaded o’er with maize;/from thee what health, what vigor he possest, ten sturdy freemen sprung from him attest;/Thy constellation rul’d my natal morn,/And all my bones were made of Indian corn.” In this couplet, Barlow eulogizes that meal that has made “Freeman” strong. Later in the poem he reflects on the “purest food of all,” which can “rear the child and sustains a man,” “Shield[s] morals while it mends the size,” and gives health to those that “partake in this short repast.” Clearly, Barlow sees the American republic growing physically strong, moral and independent from its native cuisine. 


“The Hasty Pudding,” also highlights the virtue of a nation that is the product of a simple diet and American ingredients. Barlow argues that the American who prefers an Indian corn pudding and simple diet is one who can set an example for a virtuous nation. He writes, “There are very few persons but what would always prefer a plain dish for themselves, and would prefer it likewise for their guests, if there were no risk of reputation in the case. This difficulty can only removed by example; and the example should proceed from those whose situation enables them to take the lead in forming the manners of a nation.”  Like Simmons, Barlow presents Indian pudding as an attractive option, not a dish forced upon Americans by necessity and the fact that the British and other Europeans despise it while Americans celebrate it makes both Simmons’ book and Barlow’s work proud statements of nationhood.

Looking again at the Imperial Cake and the plain cakes highlighted on Simmons’ title page one sees further that simplicity in diet is a recognition of a new American identity. Imperial Cake and later Election, Celebration, Independence and Federal Pan cakes (all featured in the 2nd edition published later in 1796) were all made from a host of rich, expensive ingredients: quarts of cream, up to four dozen eggs, five pounds of butter and in most instances at least a two pounds or as much as fifteen pounds of sugar. All of these cakes were intended for use in celebrations, whether for new state and local holidays, the Fourth of July or Election Day. The use of rich ingredients and the enormity of these cakes hint that cooks, especially women who were responsible for these cakes, were sacrificing a great deal for their community. Here then the ideas of republican self-sacrifice are played out in largely female world giving women an opportunity for civic participation through their limited private roles. 


At home however, the rich and luxurious celebration cakes were replaced with plain cakes, whose ingredients are much more judicious and which were made for everyday use. As formal distinctions between the gentry and others were being minimized in areas like fashion, where powdered wigs gave way to ponytails and knee breeches and silk stockings gave way to pantaloons for men of all classes, so too was food being simplified and democratized. These cakes feature fewer eggs, usually numbering less than five, sugar in no more than a quarter pound and very little cream and only a pound of butter. Cakes for home consumption then were, as their title implies, plain, affordable and easily produced by all. Once again the choice of food Americans, especially housewives and other women, were producing in their homes represent the current political trends and gave women an outlet to express republican identity. 


Even the language used in Amelia Simmons’ text represents a unique American statement of identity. While Webster was busy arguing for a reformed national language, Amelia Simmons was adding new words to the American vocabulary. Throughout her cookbook Simmons uses a variety of new words and words that were distinctly American. Her recipes for gingerbread call for molasses, voicing a preference for the American word rather than “treacle” used by English cookbook authors like Eliza Smith and Hannah Glasse. Mary Wilson in her introduction to a 1958 reprint of Simmons’ work, points also to Simmons’ use of new American words such as “emptins” rather than emptyings, the proper word for the dregs of wine, beer or cider that were used in fermentation. Simmons’ use of this word predates its acceptance in the “Dictionary of American English,” by more than forty-three years. She also employs the words “slapjack” for a griddlecake, “Hannah Hill” for sea bass, "shortening" in place of butter or lard, and "cookie" instead of the English “little cakes”. All of these words would become common in the American vernacular throughout the 19th century. In 1828, shortening, Hannah Hill and slapjack all make their first appearance in Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language.” 



By 1805 the editors of British cookbooks were recognizing the unique identity that Americans had when it came to food. The imprints slated for sale in America adapted their recipes to American ingredients, tastes and American language. The1805 edition of Glasses’ “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” featured “a new edition, with modern improvements.” These improvements included recipes for pumpkin pie, molasses gingerbread, “injun and rye” a cornmeal and rye mush, and American Citron or pickled watermelon rind. These recipes are all missing from the English publication of the same title and dates. Thus in a literal fashion, American tastes had achieved independence from English cuisine.


Post a Comment